A narrow winding

A narrow winding

Kinnaur, even for a Himachali like me, is a strange place. The religious affiliations there are very flexible.

Some Kinnauries are Buddhists, some Hindus, while others swing both ways. Their women don’t wear dhatus like the women from our part of Himachal, but caps like the men.

During weddings, women drink openly and gift home-brewed liquor to  baratis. Kinnauris have distinct Mongoloid features making them look more North-Easterners. Prudery has not infected them yet. And when it comes to a crunch, their women, a la Draupadi, take on many husbands.

But the most memorable Kinnauri experience for anyone — Himachali or not — is perhaps the road to Sangla, the small village in Kinnaur district.
I have seen winding roads that go on endless loops up steep hillsides, but the Sangla road is something else.

Of the rock

Firstly, like all mountain roads, the Sangla road has not been carved on a mountainside but rather bored through a rocky precipice. Therefore the road has an overhang of rock, giving you a feeling that you are driving  through a tunnel.

At one stretch, you feel frightfully hemmed in, prompting travellers to christen it ‘the sandwich road’. If you dare to get off and look down from the ‘sandwich’, which inevitably every tourist does for selfies, there is a sheer drop of a few hundred feet. Down below in the stone strewn gorge, the Baspa river — a tributary of Sutlej — appears as a trickle of water.

It is not for nothing that this road has been called one of the world’s deadliest roads and has been a subject of numerous adventure documentaries. But the road is dangerous only if you slip up, because if you do tip over the edge, there is instant death. Except at some stretches, the road is otherwise broad enough for two vehicles to cross each other.

If one is driving from Shimla, going past Kufri, Narkanda, Rampur and Jeori in Shimla district, one is for hours in the comfortable embrace of the broad, well-metalled National Highway (22).

After the highway loops down from Narkanda to Rampur, it runs alongside the Sutlej till Karcham, lulling you into visions of a quiet hill drive. But at Karcham, when you leave the relative luxury of the  highway and take the Sangla road, you are rudely jolted out of your reverie. From here it’s an 18 km adrenalin-pumping road to Sangla.

The weather-beaten road has potholes and it’s advisable to have a four-wheeler.
The famous stretch, a sheer mass of rockface through which the road is bored, giving it the ‘dangerous road’ sobriquet, is called as the Taranda Dhak by the locals.

The road gradually evens out into a valley as you reach Sangla. The village is part of lower Kinnaur and the houses are not very dissimilar from ones in other parts of Himachal at the same altitude. The landscape is, however, more majestic.

High above this sleepy tribal outpost, snow-capped mountains stand thousands of metres tall. Among them, standing at 6,050 m is the Kinner Kailash Peak.

Apple richness

The people here grow apples and cherries just like the orchardists in Shimla and Kullu district. But because the soil here is much more fertile, the quality of their fruits is better. Kinnauri apples are famous for not only being juicy and crisp, but unlike the hail-beaten apples of Shimla district, Kinnauri apples have perfect shape and colour.

A recent novelty in Sangla is the asparagus. And I found that quite by accident. Ravenously hungry after the long journey, I barged into the first dhaba in sight and ordered what eateries at such remote places are best in rustling up — Maggie.

The owner who was just seeing off a brood of foreign travellers accosted me and suggested I sample asparagus soup instead. I reluctantly agreed but was surprised by how delicious it was. The owner was watching my expressions all along and refused to charge me for the soup, but insisted I visit his asparagus  garden.

Apart from an orchard walk, if a local privileges you with one, it’s a good idea to trek up to Kamru village, which sits just above Sangla. It makes for not only an excellent trek, but is a good lesson in local history. There is an ancient Kamru fort here where the local rajas once had their coronation ceremony.

One can also trek to Chitkul, the last village on the Hindustan Tibet trade route, 22 km away.